Only smoke socially? You're still at high risk of lung cancer

  • Research shows that just cutting down on cigarettes doesn't significantly reduce your chance of getting lung cancer.
  • Social smokers are also more prone to death from respiratory disease than non-smokers.
  • 20% of South Africans are smokers.

Think you're less likely to get lung disease from "just smoking socially"? New research says that's not the case.

Presented at this year's European Respiratory Society International Congress earlier this month, researchers from Columbia University Medical Centre say that social smokers are still more than eight times more likely to die from lung cancer and more than twice as likely to die of lung disease compared to non-smokers.

You're considered a social smoker if you smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes a day, and the odds of lung cancer are almost the same as for someone who smokes 20 cigarettes a day, although lung disease was only half the rate for social smokers.

"Previous research suggests that people are cutting down on smoking. For example, in the US the proportion of smokers smoking fewer than 10 cigarettes per day has increased from 16% to 27%," says one of the co-researchers, Dr Pallavi Balte.

"So, we wanted to study the risks to social smokers compared to people who don’t smoke, and compared to heavier smokers."

READ | Smoking raises aneurysm risk in women 

Smoking in SA

In South Africa, there has been some debate over the smoking figure. Surveys by the University of Cape Town and the Human Sciences Research Council roughly estimate that 20% of South Africans can be considered as smokers, with one in three men and one in 10 women either currently smoking or having smoked before.

The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World claimed in 2018 that the figures were much higher, but many have questioned their small sample size with questionnaires offered only in English and Afrikaans. The foundation is also funded by a cigarette company that sells e-cigarettes. 

In comparison, only a small proportion of black people older than 15 ever smoked, according to the 2013 South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

READ MORE | Covid-19 deaths: Surprise findings on smoking and other insights from study of 17m patients

Sample size

They surveyed almost 19 000 participants from the US with an average age of 61. The study spanned 17 years, and in that time 649 died of respiratory disease and 560 died of lung cancer.

About 1.8% of the non-smokers in the group died from lung disease, and 0.6% from lung cancer. For social smokers, the percentage of deaths from respiratory issues was around 3.3% and for lung cancer it was 4.7%. A heavy smoker's odds were 10.1% and 12.9% respectively.

Better to just quit than cut down

So just cutting down has very little effect compared to stopping completely. The researchers are still investigating the effect of vaping, although many consider this it isn't a healthier alternative to smoking, especially after the spate of deaths last year.

"This large study is important because it shows that smoking less will probably not have the effect that people are hoping for," comments Jørgen Vestbo, chair of the European Respiratory Advocacy Council.

"We need to do all we can to support smokers to quit completely using evidence-based means, for example with access to support services, and nicotine patches or gum."

READ | Ban menthol cigarettes, lower smoking rates?

Image credit: Pixabay

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